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Volume 403: debated on Tuesday 8 April 2003

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What percentage of Scottish residents have access to broadband services. [106715]

Almost all of Scotland's population can access broadband services, either through a terrestrial link or by means of satellite connection, if they choose to do so. The need to bring affordable services to businesses and individuals across Scotland is what underpins the Government and the Scottish Executive's work on broadband.

I thank the Minister for her reply. How soon can rural communities and small towns expect to have the same access to broadband technology as the rest of Scotland? Does she agree that it is important to look after not just the central belt but the whole of Scotland?

I am delighted to advise the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) that that is exactly what is happening in Scotland. Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the Scottish Executive are rolling out a broadband expansion programme and are considering ways to solve some of the very difficult geographical challenges that we have in parts of Scotland. He will be delighted to know that that project will eventually roll out to the 250 communities across the highlands and islands, including some communities that are as small as 20 inhabitants.

Does the Minister agree that the £4.4 million earmarked to introduce broadband in Scotland is not quite enough, and will she use her good offices to try to get more money for broadband? Access to broadband for people with businesses is crucial. For example, my constituent, Mr. Glenn Watson, who has four veterinary surgeries, must pay £24,000 per annum to link up his computer services, whereas other businesses that have access to broadband can do that at a much cheaper rate.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will recognise, however, that the £4.4 million allocation to Scotland comes out of a £30 million UK broadband fund managed by the Department of Trade and Industry. She will also be delighted to have heard the news from BT late last week that it is looking to slash its broadband rates to encourage the take-up of broadband in Scotland.

Would the Minister like to reconsider her first complacent reply suggesting that everyone can have access if they have access to satellite technology? Is not the reality that, of the 1,000 exchanges in Scotland, only 68 are asymmetric digital subscriber line-enabled? That is unsatisfactory: it is a lower level than in England, and lower than in just about any other European country. When will the Government snap out of their complacency and allow rural Scotland to have the same access to this technology as just about every other country in Europe?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman took my factual comment as complacent. I said that access can be made available. Cost is an issue, which is why I would have thought that he would support the Scottish Executive, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Scottish Enterprise projects to roll out broadband, recognising that we have major geographical difficulties. I suspect, however, that the question that he and his colleagues must answer, given that they would slash our enterprise budgets, is how on earth broadband would be rolled out and the necessary investment be made.

Would my hon. Friend mind if I were untypically nice to the Liberal Democrats, and particularly to their Scottish spokesman, for his excellent research published yesterday in The Press and Journal? It showed that, merely by accessing broadband in the House of Commons Library, SNP Members would have got all the answers to their questions, which cost the taxpayer £258,000.

As usual, my right hon. Friend crystallises the issue succinctly. I would encourage more Members of this House to use our excellent facilities, including access to broadband, to elicit information without having to table parliamentary questions, if that route is available.